I will never forget that night. The salty sea air was whipping my face, mosquitoes were buzzing in my ears, my sweat-soaked shirt was sticking to my back and my pack was digging firmly between my shoulder blades. But I was focused, my eyes never leaving that shadowy, lumbering figure cresting the berm of the coastline of the Caribbean island of St. Croix. Slightly shaking, I wiped some of the sand off my hand, grasped my radio and uttered the words I had been waiting to say for weeks: “Leatherback at Stake 186.”
Once she starts to dig her nest, a female leatherback sea turtle enters a trance-like state in which we can approach them and gently begin collecting our data. I moved my hand over her carapace, feeling the smooth leather and bringing my fingers up and along one of its seven ridges. Her body was ink black with sporadic white freckles, especially around her thick neck and under her powerful jaw. I measured her, checked her for tags and logged the nest location. She stayed next to me, digging, dropping about a hundred pingpong sized eggs in her perfectly formed, 70-centimeter-deep nest and covering it with sand.
During two years working with a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sea turtle research team, I developed a respect for these animals. I have come to understand them as majestic creatures that also play an integral role in our ocean ecology. But, sadly, sea turtles are in danger. Of the threats, one of the most prominent for sea turtles is the degradation of habitat, partly from the alarming rise of plastic debris in the world’s oceans. The debris not only pollutes the water and destroys the environment, but also entangles marine animals, leading to injury and slow death.
Partially in response to the effects on coasts, California recently became the first state to ban single-use plastic bags from being given to customers at grocery stores and pharmacies, effective in July. Stores can offer compostable bags for a dime. Many environmentalists support the ban, pointing out that Californians use billions of plastic bags each year, which become ubiquitous in the landscape and environment and cause petroleum-based pollution.
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However, opposition to the law is also emerging. The American Progressive Bag Alliance has already vowed to put a referendum on the ballot in 2016 to repeal the California law. According to the opposition, banning these materials will jeopardize American manufacturing jobs, hinder the ability of stores to provide customer service to their patrons and needlessly inconvenience and overcharge consumers.
But as someone who has studied marine life and seen the fragility of our ocean’s ecosystem up close, I implore that we keep the ban.
It is dangerous and shortsighted to debate economic and environmental issues only from the standpoint of human convenience. We need to remember that we are still part of a natural web and that other organisms share our planet. Spending time with a sea turtle teaches you that.
When forming opinions about the plastic bag ban, I wish California voters could get to know the leatherback at Stake 186. I often find myself thinking about her, wondering where she is and how the seas have treated her. I can imagine her polished, dark body slicing through the waves and dodging predators. Hopefully, with fewer plastic bags in her way, she can breathe a little easier.
Claire Gonzales, a 2011 graduate of Elk Grove High School, is a senior at Duke University, where she is studying biology. She plans to become a marine biologist, focusing on sea turtle research.